To Be Catholic in a Country of Sultans

Interview with Monsignor Cornelius Sim, Apostolic Prefect of Brunei

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 21, 2001 (ZENIT.org-Fides).- Life can be trying in a country with only a few priests.



Monsignor Cornelius Sim, 50, should know. For some time he was the only Catholic priest in Brunei. He is now apostolic prefect of the sultanate, which has one of the highest average incomes per capita in the world.

The ethnic Chinese monsignor was a late vocation. A cradle Catholic, he was distant from the Church for a time. After studying engineering, he worked for Shell in Scotland, Brunei and the Netherlands.

In 1981 he returned to the Church and four years later went to study theology in the United States. Ordained in 1989, he was the only priest in Brunei until 1992. For a time in the 1990s all foreign priests and nuns had to leave the Southeast Asian sultanate.

The sultanate´s 20,000 Catholics count on the ministry of two priests, Father Ivan Fang and Father Paul Shie, and the work of one nun and two seminarians.

Monsignor Sim spoke with the Vatican agency Fides during his quinquennial "ad limina" visit to the Pope and the Roman Curia.

--Q: How would you describe your community?

--Monsignor Sim: We are a small minority, a small church with 20,000 members, out of a population of 350,000, ruled by a sultan.

Our only wish is to continue living as Christians in this country with a large Muslim majority. The Muslim majority has no reason to be kind to us. The situation is ambiguous.

At times we feel everything is fine, that the Church is tolerated; other times we feel life is very difficult. Officially we are recognized by the constitution, but it is not easy to use the law to demand our rights.

In the Islamic world you don´t speak of rights. We are only "allowed" certain things. The situation of the Church is very complex, but we have the strength of the Gospel.

--Q: Is the present international situation, the crisis in Afghanistan, felt in Brunei?

--Monsignor Sim: In Brunei, people are mostly rich -- international problems have no great impact. People are not very concerned with the situation in the rest of the world.

The country is governed with great paternalism, according to which the government must keep its citizens happy, give them money, schools, homes, cars. Social problems exist but above all among young Muslims: There are a lot of drugs and discontent.

Society is very strict: You must not do this, not do that, no alcohol. Much entertainment is seen to be Western, which means "bad," as the authorities suggest. But this pushes young people to want to try something different.

--Q: What is the main challenge to the Church´s mission?

--Monsignor Sim: Our first task is to discover what it means to be Church: not powers or privileges.

Many Catholics are tempted to dream of the golden times of the past when the Church was respected, priests were honored, there were important religious services. These things no longer exist. We are in a situation where we cannot claim or demand anything.

However, we still have our schools. In this situation we must try to put into practice the suggestion offered in "Ecclesia in Asia": The Church on this continent must dialogue with the poor, with cultures, with religions.

And her style must be humility; we must not base ourselves on esteem accumulated in the past. A humble Church at the service of all, expecting no reward or recompense.

--Q: And young Catholics?

--Monsignor Sim: Young Catholics face a number of difficulties. At present in schools there is strong Islamization. Non-Muslims are pushed to convert because of the advantages involved: A Muslim has access to higher education, a better job, a career.

Young Catholics face a dilemma; they have to choose between the faith and a good social position. Young Muslims face other problems: There are so many restrictions and so they try to go to other countries, where there is more freedom, but then they come back and return to normal.

However, things are changing: More and more people are going abroad and people are beginning to compare situations.

--Q: There are four Catholic schools with almost 3,000 pupils.

--Monsignor Sim: Yes, Catholics schools are highly appreciated by Muslim families: for the discipline, the quality of education. Islam is in difficulty: It would like to project a positive self-image, similar to that which Catholics enjoy in the rest of the world.

Islam lacks self-esteem, but I have many Muslim friends. At the personal level, they are very open. At the public level, they maintain the official line.

--Q: What has this "ad limina" visit meant for you?

--Monsignor Sim: Before I came, I had my reservations. I wondered what Rome could have to say to us in Brunei?

But I see that coming here we realize that we are not very different at all. We meet bishops from Asia, bishops from Africa, and discover that we speak the same language, we face the same problems, we have the same goal: to communicate the Gospel and the Gospel values to the people around us, whether Muslims as in Brunei, Buddhists as in Thailand, or atheists as you have here in Europe.

We see that even the famous Vatican "bureaucracy" is, in the end, a value; it is capable of communion, of sharing our situation. In Islam, communion does not exist. There is unity in public, but no attention is given to the individual.